Kings of the Water by Mark Behr
Sixteen years have passed since Mark Behr’s first novel, The Smell of Apples, a compelling meditation on loyalty and loss in the old South Africa. In his second, Kings of the Water, he weighs the costs of belonging against the perils of expatriation with subtlety and tenderness.
South Africa was once a subsidised paradise for the privileged, but recently rents have gone through the roof. The result is an exodus of white, Asian and mixed-race èmigrès, with congregations of expat South Africans now found from London to Kuala Lumpur. Many feel their right to belong, their credibility as “Africans”, is being scrutinised as never before and this sense is particularly painful among Afrikaners. It is as an Afrikaner that Behr sees deep into their unease.
The returning prodigal of Kings of the Water, Michiel Steyn, comes back from the United States, but back to what and back as whom? Steyn is gay, Afrikaans and lives in faraway San Francisco with his lover, Kamil, the son of a Palestinian mother and a Jewish father. When Steyn’s adored mother dies he returns to the family farm, Paradys, and confronts the hell that was his past.
Steyn is the sort of man Afrikaners were taught from the cradle to abominate. He has broken every taboo his tribe held sacred and reneged on the murderous machismo that made the apartheid state so brutal. He deserted church, tribe, family, profaned the notion of loyalty, subverted what is seen as “normal” love between man and woman and broke the covenant between God and his chosen ones, a title many Afrikaners claimed. Now openly gay, he deserts the woman who bore his child and brings humiliation on his family. Not surprisingly, then, his ailing father loathes him, and his family do not know what to make of him.
The achievement of Kings of the Water — the title is a reference to a game kids played at a time when Afrikaners were kings of the country — is to expose muscle-bound complacencies. The world of Steyn’s bedridden father is being swept away. Even his farm may soon be reclaimed by the indigenous people from whom it was purloined.
Steyn sees clearly the changes going on in the country but he is, as he says, a voyeur. The novel pivots on the hints and glances, guesses and reflections of what he secretly sees. No one is pure or guiltless. Not his mother, Ou Nooi, who loved him till the end; or his lover, Kamil; or his dead brother, Peet. Steyn’s identity dissolves even as he tries to define it: an Afrikaner with English connections, Australian memories and a US passport. Behr writes with delicacy and restraint of elusive things, most especially when Steyn comes face to face with his own shame at the treacheries and scandals that blew apart his family and sent him headlong into exile.
Kings of the Water is set just after the turn of the new millennium: the time of the first Gulf War and of the strange euphoria a few years into the rule of Thabo Mbeki, an era that saw the triumphant return of the racial demons one had hoped were dead and buried when apartheid collapsed and Mandela was elected. This was a time when canting talk about “African renaissance” went together with the deadly dismissal of Aids as an invention of the drug companies and a slur on the sexual mores of black Africans.
Kings of the Water describes inner and outer weather: the internal storms of the Steyn family, but also the surging violence washing over South Africa. At the same time, things are also about to change explosively in Steyn’s adopted country, the United States. Behr digs deep beneath the thin skin of that exceptionally complex citizen of the new South Africa, the Afrikaner whose world is coming down.
The spirit behind Kings of the Water is Chekhov and The Cherry Orchard. The family farm is famous for its cherries and throughout the novel we hear the sound of axes at work in the orchard. Behr does tend to rhapsodise now and then; he has a weakness for reading lists of favourite South African writers and the American sections pale alongside life at Paradys. But these are minor blemishes in one of the most moving novels to have come out of South Africa in many years. — © Guardian News & Media 2010